There's a linky in my profile to a picture I whipped up to go with this, or if you read it on AO3, it's actually in the story.
Humongous thanks to my beta, the lovely Bundibird, who disentangled my enormous, blocky, sleep-deprived paragraphs, and who is just generally wonderful.
Disclaimer: I hopped on a plane to London the other day and told BBC and Shine to give me the rights to Merlin. They laughed. Then called security.
Of Quiet Chats and Unexpected Artifacts
Just when Merlin was sure he'd been down every dark, spooky, subterranean passage in Camelot, he had to search out the royal burial vaults. One of Uther's great-uncles or something like that had been buried with a priceless magical artifact that could entrap the roaming souls of the dead, and given Camelot's recent ghost problem (what was this, the sixth or seventh variety of dead people they'd encountered?), the magical thingy had to be recovered.
Merlin wasn't too pleased about having to go grave-robbing, but it was better than letting the stupid specters run loose.
As it turned out, anyone related to the crown more closely than a third cousin was buried in a large, stone chamber at the end of a tunnel just down the corridor from the entrance to Kilgharrah's old cave. It wasn't a terrible place to be laid to rest, Merlin supposed – rumors of the dragon had deterred grave robbers for years, and it was pleasantly cool if just a little damp this far underground. Each royal cadaver was housed in a marble sarcophagus with the name and title engraved in Latin on top.
"All right, Ither of Cumberland, Ither of Cumberland, where are you?" Merlin muttered. "Anfortas de Gral, Ector pater Caius, where are you, Ith – oh."
Ither of Cumberland had still evaded him, but on the crypt before him was written
Merlin didn't have to look at the familiar face carved into the stone above the inscription to know exactly whose grave he stood before.
For half a second, Merlin expected the golden lady he had once seen at Morgause's castle to emerge, but Arthur's mother remained at peace.
"Er… I'm really sorry to intrude, but I've got to save your son and his kingdom again. I'm looking for…" Merlin trailed off, resuming his search for Ither of Cumberland a bit more quietly, but his eyes were pulled back to Ygraine's tomb.
"I'm Merlin, by the way," he said after a minute, unable to shake the feeling that he had the Queen's attention now. "I'm Arthur's servant and sometime bodyguard, not that he knows about that last bit. I'm, er, I'm magic, see. I hope you don't mind – magic wasn't outlawed when you were… erm…. And I've heard rumors that you and Nimueh were friends, although by the time I knew her, she was a piece of work. Bitter, vengeful, a bit like Uth– "
Merlin glanced awkwardly at the sepulcher, realizing it probably wasn't proper to speak ill of the dead's husband.
"Anyway, I'm looking for some kind of 'pearl vessel' that's supposed to be buried with Ither of Cumberland, because Arthur's gone and attracted the attention of a small horde of ghouls that had been perfectly happy haunting an unpopulated corner of the Darkling Woods till he went tromping through, and this vessel is the only thing we can think of to catch them, so I'm just really hoping Ither's been dead a long, long time, or this is going to be extra unpleasant," Merlin rambled, still roaming around the various tombs.
"I suppose it's not really Arthur's fault this time," Merlin continued. "No one knew they were out there, and he'd gone near there before on hunts, and if you really have to blame anyone, I might have been the one that suggested staying in that cave, but Arthur has thankfully forgotten about that for the time being, so he's not blaming me yet. Hopefully it'll stay that way."
Merlin tossed a grin over his shoulder at Ygraine, no longer noticing the strangeness of talking to his king's dead mother.
"You'd be proud of him, milady, he's a good man. A bit of a prat sometimes, although lately, it's more on purpose just to keep things normal. He can behave like a civilized person when he has to. He's… I don't know, he's Arthur. Brave to the point of stupid, noble, just. Never backs down from anything, never takes into account that he is the king and not expendable. Every time some challenger comes along and throws down his gauntlet over nothing at all, the knights and I all have to talk him down from taking it himself. I'm not ashamed to say I've drugged him or knocked him out for his own good… twice? No, three times in the last year. The great clotpo– aha! Ither Cumbriae! Knew I'd find him eventually!"
Merlin dusted off the relief of Ither's face in profile.
"Igh, he does look like a grumpy old codger. No wonder his family buried him with a spirit-catching whatchamacallit – they didn't want him getting loose. Well, there's nothing for it – hefstánhlid."
The stone lid of the sarcophagus lifted about an inch into the air and slid soundlessly away, revealing an aged wooden casket below. Merlin stumbled back, gagging.
"Oh, he stinks! Be glad you can't smell this, milady."
The manservant hung back, neckerchief pulled over his nose as he waited for the smell to dissipate. Unfortunately, he had no such luck. Reluctantly, he crept toward Ither's tomb again.
The coffin lid pulled loose of its nails and opened with a bit of a judder, revealing ("Thank heaven!") a completely clean skeleton with nothing really nasty left except a bit of hair behind the skull. Lying against the rib cage was the vessel Merlin had come for.
"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," he groaned as he squeamishly pulled his sleeves over his hands and picked it up.
The "pearl vessel" was, in fact, a very gaudy vase of shimmery white enamel inset with opals and pink pearls in a very girly flower design. Nothing about it implied its function as a trap for restless souls roaming the earth once more. If anything, the thing was begging to be filled with roses and placed on a lace doily on Gwen's tea table.
"Arthur will laugh himself silly," Merlin groused, kicking the edge of Ither of Cumberland's tomb lightly with the toe of his boot. "What am I supposed to do, run around the castle waving this thing around and calling for ghouls? It's no wonder you were such a grouch," he addressed the skeleton, "if your family buried you with this monstrosity."
Tucking the vase into his elbow, Merlin closed the casket lid and resealed the stone sarcophagus with a flick of his wrist. "Okay, that's done with."
He returned to Ygraine's tomb and set the vase down gently on the floor beside it.
"See, this is exactly the kind of thing that your son is still a prat about. He still thinks I crossdress, for crying out loud. This," he glared at the scalloped mouth of the vase, "thing will earn me a month of teasing about my proclivity for interior decorating or something. Never mind if the stupid thing saves us all."
Merlin leaned across the marble lid of the crypt and dusted off the embossed profile.
"He looks a bit like you, doesn't he? I wonder what else he got from you. There are certainly a lot of things he didn't get from his father."
"You really would be proud of him, however much I complain about him. I hope you can keep an eye on him wherever you are, because you'll only have more to be proud of him for. He's got this destiny to rule all Albion, and I'm sort of destined to get him there, and there are some days I could swear my job is done."
Merlin chuckled fondly.
"And then there are some days I still wonder if I've got the wrong Arthur."
Merlin ran a hand carefully over the inscription.
"Maybe I should bring him down here sometime. I doubt he's ever seen where you're laid to rest, and he wonders about you a lot." He sniffed a little, then wrinkled his nose. "I should probably wait till Ither's stink has aired out a bit, though."
He dusted his hands off, then held one out in front of him as his eyes flashed gold.
"My Latin's not very good, much to Gaius's dismay, but hopefully this is right," he muttered as the letters were added at the bottom of the epitaph –
– beloved mother.
"Rest well, milady," he said as he retreated, leaving behind Ygraine and Ither of Cumberland and Anfortas de Gral and all the others. Dust and silence settled back over the chamber.
Then footsteps clattered down the tunnel again.
"Sorry, sorry, forgot the stupid vase!" Merlin exclaimed as he grabbed the garish thing off the ground and headed back up the passage.
Somewhere, Ygraine snickered quietly.